Book review: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, by Frans de Waal.
This book is primarily about discrediting false claims of human uniqueness, and showing how easy it is to screw up evaluations of a species’ cognitive abilities. It is best summarized by the cognitive ripple rule:
Every cognitive capacity that we discover is going to be older and more widespread than initially thought.
De Waal provides many anecdotes of carefully designed experiments detecting abilities that previously appeared to be absent. E.g. asian elephants failed mirror tests with small, distant mirrors. When experimenters dared to put large mirrors close enough for the elephants to touch, some of them passed the test.
Likewise, initial observations of behaviorist humans suggested they were rigidly fixated on explaining all behavior via operant conditioning. Yet one experimenter managed to trick a behaviorist into demonstrating more creativity, by harnessing the one motive that behaviorists prefer over their habit of advocating operant conditioning: their desire to accuse people of recklessly inferring complex cognition.
De Waal seems moderately biased toward overstating cognitive abilities of most species (with humans being one clear exception to that pattern).
At one point he gave me the impression that he was claiming elephants could predict where a thunderstorm would hit days in advance. I checked the reference, and what the elephants actually did was predict the arrival of the wet season, and respond with changes such as longer steps (but probably not with indications that they knew where thunderstorms would hit). After rereading de Waal’s wording, I decided it was ambiguous. But his claim that elephants “hear thunder and rainfall hundreds of miles away” exaggerates the original paper’s “detected … at distances greater than 100 km … perhaps as much as 300 km”.
But in the context of language, de Waal switches to downplaying reports of impressive abilities. I wonder how much of that is due to his desire to downplay claims that human minds are better, and how much of that is because his research isn’t well suited to studying language.
I agree with the book’s general claims. The book provides evidence that human brains embody only small, somewhat specialized improvements on the cognitive abilities of other species. But I found the book less convincing on that subject than some other books I’ve read recently. I suspect that’s mainly due to de Waal’s focus on anecdotes that emphasize what’s special about each species or individual. Whereas The Human Advantage rigorously quantifies important ways in which human brains are just a bigger primate brain (but primate brains are special!). Or The Secret of our Success (which doesn’t use particularly rigorous methods) provides a better perspective, by describing a model in which ape minds evolve to human minds via ordinary, gradual adaptations to mildly new environments.
In sum, this book is good at explaining the problems associated with research into animal cognition. It is merely ok at providing insights about how smart various species are.